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"Risk taking which might have been counseled against in more placid times, might be smart to consider."


- Dr. Vint Cerf, Google

Zpryme speaks with Vint Cerf, Father of the Internet and Google’s Chief Internet Evangelist about his experience contracting COVID-19, his views on how the pandemic will impact society, and the technologies that may flourish in the future. Plus a message for the Class of 2020. #loveyourenergy #classof2020

Vint Cerf April 21, 2020 Interview Transcript 

 

Jason Rodriguez:
Good afternoon everyone. This is Jason Rodriguez here with Zpryme. Today I have the pleasure of being joined by the Vint Cerf. Vint is the founder of the internet and he’s currently the Chief Internet Evangelist at Google. Vint, how are you doing today?

Vint Cerf:
Well, I’m feeling very well, thank you. Especially considering a few weeks ago I was tested positive for Covid-19. So, the fact that I feel good today is a big improvement over a couple of weeks back.

Jason Rodriguez:
Great. And I understand your wife also tested positive for Covid-19?

Vint Cerf:
Yes. We both tested positive around March 24th or so.

Jason Rodriguez:
Thanks again for being here today. I believe this is our fourth interaction, officially. We did an interview back in 2016, I think you spoke at ETS16, and then last year we did a really cool interview along with you, Elise Roy and Seyi Fabode about the power disabilities. We’re very excited to have you back. A new tradition here at Zpryme is, we like to warm things up with something we call the speed round. Are you okay with that?

Vint Cerf:
Yes, I am.

Jason Rodriguez:
What did you have for breakfast?

Vint Cerf:
I had bacon and eggs.

Jason Rodriguez:
If you could invent one thing, what would it be?

Vint Cerf:
Oh, I would want to invent fusion reaction power, if I could.

Beverly:
Hi Vint, this is Beverly from Florida. This is such a pleasure. Here’s my question. What mode of transportation do you prefer the most?

Vint Cerf:
At the moment, my wife and I drive Teslas and we’re pretty happy. They use electricity, they don’t spew carbon dioxide or sulfur dioxide or anything else out the door. Although, it raises the question, where did the electricity come from? So, there’s sort of a cascade question. But, we’re very happy with those two cars.

Jason Rodriguez:
Awesome. Thanks for participating. So now we can dive into some of the key issues around Covid-19. So first off, what was it like experiencing Covid-19?

Vint Cerf:
There are lots of different aspects of this. The first one is that neither of us had other than very mild symptoms. In fact, my wife didn’t have any of the classic symptoms that normally are associated with it, headache, fever, chills, the loss of taste and the ability to smell. We had very, very mild symptoms. We struggled to get tested. It was very difficult. We tried several different places to try to get a test. This is way back towards the third week of March, and we were turned down in an adjacent County. We were turned down in Fairfax County and we ended up paying $500 each to be tested in a clinic in Washington, D.C. where we got the bad news that we were both positive.

On the whole, two things that struck me about our experience was, first it’s debilitating in the sense that it makes you very tired. Your body is clearly fighting something. I had a temperature of 102.4, I had terrible chills and then just sort of felt lethargic for a couple of weeks. So, the first thing that you noticed is that. And I think almost everybody has that experience and then it could get a lot worse. Which raises the other aspect of the experience, and that’s not knowing whether you were getting any better or whether you were about to slide down the mountain, end up having trouble breathing, ending up in an ICU or maybe even on a ventilator.

By good fortune, we didn’t end up with any of those scenarios. But you don’t know from day to day whether you’re getting a lot better or whether you’re about to go over a cliff. And we heard stories about people feeling okay and then suddenly plunging down into a serious medical condition.

So we were very lucky. We slowly got better, got more energy back. And at this point now, nearly a month since the diagnosis, we both seem to be back to normal. What we don’t know, however, is whether we have any immunity or if we do have immunity, how long it will last. And that’s because we simply don’t have enough information. We have not done enough testing. We don’t know what the real prevalence of the disease is. And that’s scary because without that information we don’t know how to plan. And as a result, a lot of us including you probably are working from home and consider ourselves lucky to be able to work from home, but not everyone can.

The terrible outcome of the shutdowns and the sheltering in place is that for a lot of people this is economically very damaging. It’s not just companies that are hurting, it’s people and individuals and families. So this is a very serious problem economically speaking, psychologically speaking, and medically speaking. I hope, of course, that we can find our way out of this, but it’s going to be hard because we don’t have a vaccine. Vaccines don’t just happened automatically. You have to do lots of testing and make sure they’re safe and effective. So we have months ahead, I think, before and we can begin to see daylight at the end of this particular tunnel.

Jason Rodriguez:
I have a followup question there. I had a nephew who recently tested positive for Covid-19, he also had some issues getting tested, but when he finally did get one, it took about seven to eight days to get the results back. So how long did it take for you and your wife to get your results back?

Vint Cerf:
It was about three days. This was of course in late March. So here we are months later, there’s more testing being done, there’s more testing capacity being done. But remember testing involves a variety of things including getting the sample, getting the sample to the lab, having the lab go through. The tests that are typically performed today are called PCR tests. That involves a considerable amount of equipment because you eventually have to take the RNA sample that you get from the swab, turn it into DNA and then run it through the sequencer. Polymerise chain reaction involves quite a bit of mechanics.

There are newer tests which are for antibodies which don’t say anything about whether you have the disease or not, but it certainly says whether you had it. You wouldn’t have antibodies if you didn’t have it. So, that will help us understand more quickly. I mean those tests could take 15 minutes or possibly even less. But we still need to understand who is actively effected, who is still sick, and who is now on the other side of that but showing antibodies.

Jason Rodriguez:
Thank you for sharing that. That’s a really compelling story to hear about some of the things you went through and some of the things you were feeling and experiencing with Covid-10. We really appreciate you sharing that.

Now kind of moving on to put your futurist hat on a little bit. There’s going to be both short term and long term impacts to the outbreak, but I’d really like to get your thoughts on how does this reshape our world?

Vint Cerf:
And there are immediate effects, which you alluded to, people whose work involves face to face interaction, whether it’s in a restaurant or haircut place or any other place where personal services are involved. Even the post office, for example, where there’s a counter and there’s somebody behind the counter. So we’re seeing pretty extreme measures that have extreme economic consequences. Even the attempts by the Congress to provide funds for small businesses ran out of funds within a couple of weeks and did not necessarily get to the places where it was intended to go. So we have some difficulties, as you and others were already have seen, responding to the economic side of all this.

There’s also the stress of being locked up at home. If you’re trying to work from home but you don’t have a place to work where it’s quiet, if you have a lot of density of people who are also grabbing for your attention, this makes it not optimal.

So the near term, lots and lots of challenges. In the longer term, a couple of questions come to my mind. The first one, of course, is how do we prepare better for situations like this? What should we have done and what should we now do in order to be better prepared? Personal protection equipment, masks and the like. But the next thing might not just be an epidemic. It might not be medical at all. It might be a natural disaster. It might be a problem with the power generation and distribution system. It might be the water system. It could be more localized or it could be much broader.

Of course, we do have a very longterm problem that we all know about and that’s global warming. That’s another problem that we should be thinking about and working on and taking active measures to deal with. As we look at the possible consequences of our immediate experience, one interesting thing is trying to teach people online, to do interactions like you and I are doing right now. I think that, that’s not always working well. There’re some places where it’s worked reasonably and other places where it hasn’t worked at all. Access control, preventing people from getting in who don’t belong there. Trolls or people who disrupt the video conference, for example. We have to deal with those problems.

There may be a longer term consequence where people are permitted to work from home if they would like to. Whereas, a lot of companies used to resist this on the grounds that, “Well, we couldn’t tell if you were actually working.” So we may actually see a shift towards some accommodation for people who need to work at home because maybe they have a physical disability that makes it hard to get into to work, even if it’s just temporary. Or because it’s convenient to work at home.

So, we may see an interesting shift there. We may see a shift in the educational system to allow for more online interactions, more online learning. That could have a number of benefits because it might expand the cohort of people who can learn that way. For example, if they’re looking to learn new things at night after their work is done. If the schools were online, they have the opportunity to do that. So we may see some longer term side effects of the actions that we’ve taken in order to make use of current online methods.

I sincerely hope that we will take away from this experience that science, technology, longterm planning and investment in infrastructure are all vital to our future. If we can just learn that from this experience while we go through it and survive it and apply it, then the next time a major event like this happens we should be in much better shape to respond.

Jason Rodriguez:
So one follow up here. We have earth day coming up, our oil market is crashing, and we currently have beautiful spring days. You mentioned the need that we need to continue to push forward with the fight for climate change. But on the other hand, there’s a lot of talk about decarbonizing and reaching net zero emissions by 2050. But from the looks of it, could it be that the earth is telling us that, “You know what? I’m just going to go ahead and do this myself. Let’s not wait another 10 years.”

Vint Cerf:
There’s a concept, which I don’t necessarily quite either agree with or understand, called Gaia. And the idea is that the earth self manages. It has cycles that generate oxygen, absorb carbon dioxide and so on, or produce carbon dioxide. And it turns out that, of course, we contribute to that process by the use of artifacts. It may very well be, I think it’s not. I don’t see this as intentional. I see this as a consequence of our failure to prepare and plan, but the consequences may teach us some lessons.

Example, when we go out for a walk, which we try to do now once a day around the little park near where we live, the sky is beautiful. I mean, the irony of all this is that we’re in the middle of a serious, horrendous pandemic. Many people are dying and the sky is beautiful, and it’s beautiful spring weather and the two collide. But part of the reason the weather is nice, this is not counting some of the horrible tornadoes and other things that hit the Southern States, is that nobody’s driving cars and as a result, we’re not polluting the atmosphere.

Maybe we should remember this as we come out of this situation and remind ourselves, “Oh, maybe we really should try to do something about not burning carbon generating fuels, but find a way to invest in new infrastructure so that we can have beautiful days like this all the time and breathe more freely.” I think there will be some real longterm opportunities here if we just remember… To just remember what we experienced, and remember what the consequences were of choices that we made earlier that made it hard for us to react well.

Jason Rodriguez:
Thanks, Vint. Another thing I wanted to dive into is, in 2016 you mentioned that Bill Gates would be remembered for a long time. A lot had to do with, which you had said, is his philanthropy work. Not so much as technology work. As we look at this, he seems to have seen this coming. So, what else can we do to be better prepared in the future for situations like this?

Vint Cerf:
First of all, I give a lot of credit to Bill Gates, not only for his foresight in the speech he made, I guess it was something like 2015. And of course he has spent a great deal of the money he has made doing things that are intended to help a significant fraction of the world’s population. I think that… I hope, actually, that governments around the world including our own will recognize that investment in curiosity driven science, investment in new infrastructure, investment in national stockpiles, for example, in anticipation of various scenarios is a wise thing to do.

I would be willing to bet that the amount of money we might have spent on research and infrastructure and on stockpiles would be less than the amount of money we’re currently planning to spend, which is in the trillions, to cope with the way in which we’ve had to deal with this particular pandemic by shutting things down. The idea here is that we should be thinking more fully and deeply about how to spend resources in order to look for better outcomes than the one that we’re currently experiencing.

Surely, we must look in the longer term of the climate problem. We know what its consequences are. Some of them will be rising sea levels, which will affect the populations around the edges of the continents. Think of how densely populated a lot of those places are. Think about the idea that you can’t just keep making buildings higher on stilts, or eventually you have to move people in-land to safer locations. We need new laws that say don’t build in places that are at risk, because all you do is waste resources. So, there are many policy decisions that are facing us right now that should be informed by the experience we’ve had with Covid-19, and extrapolate it to make for a better future.

Jason Rodriguez:
Thank you. So to close out, we have two final questions. How does this Covid-19 outbreak help advance technology adoption, and are there any advanced technologies you see really breaking through as a result of the outbreak?

Vint Cerf:
Yeah, absolutely. One of the most important things is for your listeners to keep in mind that computational X has become a very important part of both the research environment and the product development environment. You talk about computational physics, computational linguistics, computational biology and personalized medicine. You know, full genome sequencing taking into account the person and the way in which particular illnesses affect that person. These kinds of computationally, expensive kinds of treatment are more feasible now. Thanks to the kind of cloud computing that we have, thanks to a network that links all those resources together. Thanks to search engines that let us find useful information, thanks to more collaboration among scientists and among engineers and among people who make products and services.

All of that tells me that computing and communication are going to be extremely important in the decades ahead. And we have an opportunity to put those capabilities to work.

Jason Rodriguez:
To wrap up, the class of 2020 has also had their lives disrupted. What advice do you have for them?

Vint Cerf:
I resonate with our 2020 graduates. My Chief of Staff’s son is a doctor, he just graduated, they couldn’t have a graduation ceremony and they’re probably going to throw him in as a resident into the deep end of the pool. As part of the Covid-19 pandemic. So to those 2020 graduates, I would say several things. First of all, you’re emerging out of a challenging time, so please remember what that was like. Don’t forget that. Because you want to be motivated not to repeat this if you can possibly help it. Keep thinking in your own mind, “What can I do to be better prepared? What can I do to help others be better prepared?”

The second thing I would say to these graduates is that on the edge of chaos lies opportunity. This is almost always true. And so, while we are in the middle of chaotic times in pretty much every dimension you can think of, that chaos opens up opportunities for new ideas. It even gives you the justification for trying risky things, because the situation is sufficiently dyer that almost anything that could make it better is worth trying. Even if it’s risky. I don’t mean stupid things. I do mean, that risk taking which might have been counseled against in otherwise more placid times, might actually be a smart and good thing to consider. So, taking risks, trying out new ideas, being willing to fail. Being willing to try things out that even you might think might not work, but have a possibility of working. That’s a terrific philosophy to take with you as you graduate in 2020, and you look forward to the rest of the decade.

Jason Rodriguez:
Thank you. I really like the part about the seniors, or the class of 2020 really using this time to experiment and take risks they probably wouldn’t have the opportunity to do so otherwise. But that wraps up our interview. We thank you, again, so much for your time, and for sharing some of the lessons learned in your personal experience with Covid-19.

So to conclude, I would like to ask you one last thing, and that’s if you can sign this interview.

Thank you, Vint. It’s been a pleasure having you on.